What ever happened to Indie Rock?

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Once a thriving scene of big name-artists which produced a vibrant and alternative sound, indie rock currently lies half buried in the annals of British music history. What I’d term a post-post-Britpop era of British indie rock is upon us – a barren wasteland of decent alternative music where even indie bands which followed in the wake of the Britpop era such as Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand and the Libertines are today redundant. The hard guitar hooks of Oasis and even the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of the early Arctic Monkeys’ sound are simply non-existent echoes of the past.

Of course while British indie bands such as Foals, Vaccines, Bombay Bicycle Club and Tribes have not too distantly produced some good music, this is not the scene it once was. Dorian Lynskey of the Guardian sums it up well in saying that “the past is another country. The British public buys guitar music there.” What is puzzling about the current music culture we live in, however, is how so few bands seem to be breaking through while it is easier than ever for the public to access new bands and music through the proliferation of music-streaming platform such as Spotify and YouTube.

Indeed, much of the achievement of the Arctic Monkeys’ rise to prominence was down to the ability to spread their music on the Internet; fans were known sharing their songs on MySpace, leading to a word-of-mouth popularity online. Their first album – “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” – was the fastest selling debut album in UK chart history when it was released on the 23rd January 2006. This was down to this online circulation of their sound, which suggested that the ease with which this music could be publicised would bring similar indie bands to the fore. Since then, however, the tendency seems to be a decline in the number of breakthrough British guitar bands due to the rising accessibility of music through online circulation.

Spotify and YouTube are the most popular platforms for much of the EDM, R&B and folk pop that is eminent in today’s music scene. Among the top 50 most streamed songs of all time on Spotify none are by artists which could be called guitar bands, and as of the 22nd of April the 100 most streamed songs on Spotify in the UK had The Killers as the only exception to a list composed with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars. The point is, in the 1990’s, at the height of Britpop one can imagine that the likes of Oasis, The Verve or Blur and in the post-Britpop era of 2000’s, that The Libertines, Arctic Monkeys and FranzFerdinand would have been prominent in both these lists without a doubt.

The Libertines (source: flickr)

So what has happened to British guitar bands?

If we take Arctic Monkeys as an example, the contrast in the sound of their first album to their latest release is quite extraordinary. “Whatever People Say…” was a concept album detailing themes from the lives of young northern clubbers to youth subcultures, imbued with a garage rock and even punkish sound to it, characteristic of British indie rock. While with their album, “AM” the influences of American R&B, Hip-Hop and Soul are at contrast with their earlier sound; frontman Alex Turner citing artists such as Outkast, and R&B singer Aaliyah as inspiration.

In the UK at the very least both albums achieved largely the same commercial success, but the genres they serve have dramatically changed. With AM’s massive popularity in America the Arctic Monkeys became a mainstream band, dipping into the R&B market and losing their robust sense of British edginess. The transformation of arguably the biggest current home grown band in recent years symbolises that quintessentially British rock music has ceased to be an importance force.

Furthermore, the influence of American R&Band Hip-Hop is evident throughout the UK charts at large. Take Ed Sheeran as an example. His latest release, “Shape of You” is a song infused with the R&B influence of the American music landscape. Sheeran sings: “Grab on my waist and put that body on me, / Come on now, follow my lead” and in the chorus claims “I’m in love with your body, / And last night you were in my room, / And now my bedsheets smell like you.”

Forgetting for the moment Sheeran’s nasal inquisition into his bedsheets, it is clear here that Hip-Hop influenced music which leans pointedly on sexual references is the archetype of current popular music, not only in America but now in the UK as well. Not that this in itself is a bad thing. When it is the only format by which artists write and produce music, however, it leads to a monotonous and repetitive music market. For another, it’s just not very British indie rock – Noel Gallagher certainly never wrote any songs about turning up at the club and grinding on anyone.

Ed Sheeran (source: flickr)

Jeremy Gordon of Spin humorously states that Ed Sheeran’s song “is a plausible attempt at convincing us he has had sex” – which if you were a member of any of Britpop’s music giants it was already safe to assume. I suppose that’s the difference between the British artists of today and of those in the 1990’s. Oasis, Blur, the Verve – they knew they were it, and flaunted it. They portrayed themselves as successes so utterly and convincingly that they had no need to justify it. On the other hand, Sheeran’s attempt to portray himself as as self-assured of his coolness is palpable. As such, the façade looks somewhat disappointing.

The point again here is that a quintessentially British personality is absent from the current UK music landscape. The resurrection of bands such as The Stone Roses and The Libertines is a desperate attempt to redress this imbalance and bring British guitar music back as a force in the UK again, as an alternative to enduring the repetitive and americanised chart scene that we are burdened with. Regardless of what you think about the current state of popular music, it is little else than justified to call the milieu of British Indie Rock as stale. So, what can the alternative listener expect from Britain over the next few years? Well, Sally can wait.

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